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3 Days In the Life of a Volunteer

The following accounts three days of my recent volunteering stay in Malawi. It was an amazing experience and I hope it inspires you to reach out to the projects I visited and volunteer yourself:

Butterfly Space (Nkhata Bay) | Nyumba Ya Masambiro/Phunzira (Ruarwe)

Day 1: Sunday 20th May 2012

Woke up early, around 5.30am after a night at The Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay and loaded up the boat ready to set off up Lake Malawi. The previous day, we had arrived on the bus from Lilongwe.

We were going to get the large ferry up the lake (which usually takes around 5 hours to get to Ruarwe), but by chance we had bumped into a friend the night before and managed to hitch a lift, as he was heading up the lake in a smaller boat. After the flight and bus, this was the third and final part of the journey to get to the village of Ruarwe and to the learning centre “Nyumba Ya Masambiro.”

As we set off out into the lake, the sun was just beginning to come up and the water was incredibly still. Lake Malawi stretched off far into the distance and looked more like a vast sea. It was very beautiful. In between the luggage and spare fuel, we sat back and watched the world go by as we made our way up the shoreline. There were lots of small villages along the way, with a few people out and about in small dug out boats. In between the villages, crops lined the hillsides, soaking up the morning sunshine as well as us!

The shoreline along Lake Malawi on the way to Ruarwe

The journey took around 3 hours. We pulled into “ Zulunkhuni River Lodge” (our accommodation for the duration of our stay) at around 10am and Rosa was there to meet us off the boat. The lodge is built into the hillside and consists of around 6 buildings: a hand full of separate wooden sleeping chalets and a dorm, all built in a traditional local style with thatched roofs. We headed to the eating area and had some breakfast.


Eating area at Zulunkhuni River Lodge

After sorting out our rooms, we jumped into the lake for a swim. It was crystal clear, and we plucked up the courage to climb up on a giant rock and jump off. There are also a couple of waterfalls nearby so we took a walk up there to see those. We sat around and chatted, and met the staff running the lodge. Ended up crashing out pretty early. There’s no electricity at the lodge, so it seemed like the natural thing to do! It was a very peaceful nights sleep, with just the sound of the lapping waves gently hitting the shoreline outside.


Day 2: Monday 21st May 2012

Woke up early around 6am and managed to motivate myself to go for an early morning swim in the lake. An amazing way to start the day!


Swimming in the lake!

I had hash browns and eggs for breakfast cooked by the River Lodge’s staff, and then set off walking with everyone to the learning centre. The path runs along the coastline and took us around 20 minutes. Along the way, we passed a few houses and practiced some local greetings so we could say hello and good morning/evening. I'm pretty useless at languages but after a repeating them a few times like a parrot, I managed to pick them up! It was already fairly hot, and the skies were clear blue. Not a cloud in sight! The approach into the village runs along a beautiful sandy beach with a few fishing boats on the shore.


“Commute” into Ruarwe!

Walking though the village, everyone was already up and about and we said hello as we walked through. Everyone was very friendly. The village was actually slightly bigger than I thought, with around 50 – 70 houses. The centre is based on the far side of the village, so we had to walk all the way through and come out the other side.

We arrived at the centre and took a brief tour. It was great to see it all in person, with the different classrooms, library and gardens fully built.


Outside two of the classrooms with solar panels on top

The vegetation was much more lush than I thought it would be - almost tropical looking with a scattering of palm trees. It was just coming out of the rainy season - but even though it contradicted by preconceptions. There's a kitchen area where all the staff sit and eat together, so we went there and drank some water. To start off the day, we did a voluntary "stretch" session with one of the locals, Samson - consisting of all the staff laying mats down in one of the classrooms and dancing around like we were back at play school, copying whatever action Samson was doing. It was great to get the blood flowing and also all do something together at the start of the day. After we'd finished, Samson did another couple of sessions for anyone who wanted to join in from the village.

After catching our breaths, for the rest of the morning, Naomi and I decided to test the science films that we'd brought over, to see if they worked okay on the couple of laptops in the library. They all seemed to work fine, which was great news. On the coming Thursday, we’d arranged for 70 children from a local school to head down and watch a handful of the films being projected in the library and at the same time register them so that they can use the library. The learning centre has 2 solar panels, the only electricity in the area, so we also arranged for the laptops to be charged.


Film projection and library induction that took place on Thursday 24th May

For lunch we all sat around a table in the kitchen area and had a simple meal of rice and beans that was delicious. I was pretty ravenous so absolutely wolfed it down. After lunch, Rosa, Jonny and myself climbed up one of the hills by the side of the centre. I wanted to take a few pictures looking down on the buildings and it's also the only place that has any kind of phone reception!


View from the top of the hill looking along the coast and down onto the learning centre


Amazingly at the top of the hill, there's a football pitch where the local teams play each other. They weren't there, but in their place were a couple of mischievous monkeys! By the time we got back down from the hill, it was time for Youth Club. First off Phoebe, Gemma and Georgie (the volunteer doctors from the health centre), did a session about HIV, and used some inventive and creative ways to talk about the subject. Afterwards, the hula-hoops came out and everyone got involved at some stage. I was pretty rubbish, much to the amusement of the children.



Youth club lasted a couple of hours and was pretty hectic but loads of fun!


HIV session at Youth Club


Youth Club dancing!

We left the centre around 5.30pm and began the walk back to Zulunkhuni River Lodge along the coastal path. I went for another swim in the lake and headed to the eating area for dinner. Some people chose to cook their own food in the outdoor cooking area or you could order dinner from the kitchen. Every evening, they cook something different, depending on what's available. Tonight it was Mexican with a mound of fresh avocado's tomatoes and tortillas. It was all delicious and fresh and hats off to the kitchen staff! It was really nice to all sit around together and chat. Everything was lit by candlelight, and it made a refreshing change not to have phones bleeping and going off. After dinner some people played board games and read books with a cheeky rum and coke in hand.

I crashed out early (again) around 9ish, and was ready for a sound night's sleep.


Day 3: Tuesday 22nd May 2012

Woke up around 6.30am. The lake was a bit rougher today, so decided to give the morning swim a miss and head straight for breakfast. I had home made waffles, tomatoes and beans. They grow coffee beans up on the hillside, and roast their own, therefore making it absolutely amazing - though very strong! A couple of cups and your brain runs at twice the speed, which for me is probably helpful… I’m not the greatest morning person. Naomi and I walked into Ruarwe and managed to greet the local people along the way. We bumped into Joe, a local artist, who was patiently untangling a fishing net on the beach. He wandered into the village with us. It was hot already, so it was good to do the walk early. We both sat down and hatched a plan, to paint the sign for “Nyumba Ya Masambiro” on the side of one of the classrooms and then did another stretch session with Samson and the rest of the staff.

The centre was slightly quieter today, so Joe and I cracked on with sketching the outlines for the words NYM. We couldn't find a ruler large enough, so we ended up using a broom handle to draw the straight lines! It took us the whole morning to draw out the giant letters. We borrowed the ladders from the newly constructed chicken coup to get up to the higher areas.

We rested for lunch again around midday and sat around in the shade out of the hot sun. In the afternoon we started to colour in the art piece, and a few more people from around the centre joined in which was fun. There were a few children around from the nearly primary school, so we played some ball games and of course a bit more hula-hooping!


Painting the sign with local artists

There was a women's group in the afternoon, meeting in one of the classrooms so a couple of volunteers sat in on that. The gardeners were busy away tending to the multitude of plants and crops being grown in the centre’s gardens. Everything is being designed so it doesn’t need any pesticides or chemicals, using permaculture techniques, with some impressive results!

The lush gardens

I'd been invited by a couple of the local footballers to go up onto the hill and watch one of their practices, so around 4pm, I once again climbed the hillside. Joe came with me and we sat and watched the teams play.


Local football team training session

After an hour or so, we headed back down the hill. Juliana (one of the other volunteers - working in the gardens) was up there making a phone call, so we all walked back through the village and to the lodge together, with the usual greetings along the way. After a quick dip in the lake, we all sat down and had dinner. Vegetable curry was on the cards and was once again delicious. After a few rounds of cards, and once the sun had gone down, I made my way to bed. Another busy, productive day at Nyumba Ya Masambiro!

Jonny Harris